Case Law Research On Google Scholar

As the political climate of anti-intellectualism sweeps the country, more and more universities are suffering from a trend of flat budgets and budget declines.  Those declines have filtered down to university libraries, and database services that scholars have always taken for granted are now absent. Shephard’s Citators may be the gold standard, but there are now alternatives.  Paying an expensive monthly subscription to Westlaw or LexisNexis is an impossibility for many university libraries these days, but those subscriptions may not be absolutely necessary if legal researchers are willing to roll up their sleeves and do a little more work.

With the exception of a few Luddites, everyone knows about Google, even to the point of using it as a verb.  Googe the verb is synonymous with finding out the answer to any question. The problem with Google is that it finds popular results more than it does accurate results.   Google Scholar is a lesser known service that helps fix this problem by trying to limit the database that it maintains for this type of search to scholarly sources. These include legal resources, such as states, regulations, and court cases.   Google’s thirst for ever better search has spawned tools specific to case research. These may not yet have the weight of Shepards, but it is a powerful tool that can get the job done. 

When you first navigate to scholar.google.com, you will notice a familiar Google search box, but the banner at the top of the page appends the word “scholar” to the familiar Google logo.  You will also note two “radio buttons” that let the user select “articles” or “case law.” when you select “case law,” an unassuming link appears that allows the user to “select courts.” This opens another page that lists most state and federal courts in the United States.  Most undergraduate students will be interested in the “Supreme Court” option. Once you select the court(s) of interest, select “done” at the bottom of the page. A new search page will open, and you can begin a search for the case you are interested in. When you find and open your case, you are provided with the text of the case.  The case returned by Google Scholar will have nearly ever citation within the case hyperlinked to the source referenced. This in itself is a valuable research tool but is not the one we are interested in for this article. We are most interested in the “how cited” link at the top of the page.

The “how cited” tool doesn’t provide specific treatment flags as does Shephard’s, but it does provide key phrases from the case, and a link to list all of the cases that use similar phrases drawn from the case.  This means that the researcher can choose a particular statement of the law and then find all references to that statement in other cases.  By phrase, the “similar citations” count is provided, but, unfortunately, that information is not hyperlinked to the list. The “all citing documents” list is hyperlinked and can return a staggering amount of cases.  This means that you researcher can ultimately find the status of a law, but it will take a lot of digging and analysis. This method is perhaps most useful for more obscure state cases and less useful for dealing with broad sweeping constitutional issues decided by SCOTUS.

Of interest to the student of the law is the “related cases” tool that provides a list of cases that consider related legal issues.   These are related in a very general sense, and overarching issues like the “right to privacy” and “probable cause” will likely be the common thread.  This will not answer the “still good law?” question, but it will provide you with related cases and issues that can be useful in the classroom.

As of now, Google Scholar is no replacement for Shepherd’s Citators, but it does offer some tools which are better than none.